Dragons and the Imaginative Mind of J.R.R. Tolkien

Smaug in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy

This article is by Anne Marie Gazzolo.

J. R. R Tolkien had a life-long fascination with dragons.

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he spoke of the stories he liked and disliked as a child.  “The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood . . . . But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.”

Tolkien wrote of dragons from childhood, and they figure in some of his most important and celebrated writings, including his famous essay on Beowulf, and of course, in The Hobbit. While Smaug is the most well-known, these dreaded creatures make other appearances as well, and they are not always in the form we easily recognize from other fantasy literature.

The least recognizable form could be the dragon seen and heard in “The Dragon’s Visit” that Tolkien published in Oxford Magazine in 1937. I do not think, if properly treated, those timid in body would have minded having this worm in their neighborhood, as this is precisely where the reader finds him, sleeping in a tree and woken up by water falling upon him. This delights him, and he plans a way to reward his benefactor.

“How cool,” he said, “delightfully cool

are Mister Higgins’ fountains!

I’ll sit and sing till the moon comes,

as they sing beyond the mountains;

and Higgins, and his neighbours, Box,

Miss Biggins and old Tupper,

will be enchanted by my voice:

they will enjoy their supper.”

This dragon appears quite tame and would have been friendly to the men and women around him, if they were friendly to him. But rather than enjoy a dragon serenade, they respond with violence and a desire to destroy the threat they perceive. In reality, there is no peril, but they do not realize that. They stir up the destructive part of the dragon, which is the only part they know about and wish to protect themselves from. Rather than enjoy their dinner, some of them are dinner themselves. The dragon buries his other victims, mourns in song the loss of Mister Higgins, and then flies away.

Chrysophylax, the dragon that figures in the humorous tale, Farmer Giles of Ham, is another departure from the worms of legend but closer to them than the tree-loving dragon. Chrysophylax has a treasure hoard that dragons are famous for possessing, but rather than go on a destructive rampage to avenge any loss of it, he actually gives part of it away to Farmer Giles, after the man comes to claim what the worm had already promised to give but in actuality had no intention of doing. Chrysophylax carries it tied to his back to the man’s home in the Little Kingdom, where he remains for a long time a tamed dragon.

Even the dragon that figures in Beowulf falls short of a true dragon, as Tolkien notes in his famous essay on the poem.  It does show, however, how closely related in a literary sense this dragon and Smaug are.

Beowulf’s dragon, if one wishes really to criticize, is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough, plain pure fairy-story dragon. There are in the poem some vivid touches of the right kind . . . in which this dragon is real worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own, but the conception, none the less, approaches draconitas rather than draco: a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life), and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or bad (the evil aspect of all life). But for Beowulf, the poem, that is as it should be. (“Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics” 17)

The Great White Dragon that Roverandom and the moon-dog discover to their peril in the tale Tolkien wrote for his young son, Michael, is not a real dragon either. He holds some undragonish fear for the Man-in-the-Moon. He has the destructive nature worms do and nearly kills the two dogs, but the Man injures him badly enough to have him break off the chase. The worm goes back to his cave, so injured that the eclipse that had been scheduled does not take place because he is too busy tending to his wounds to take his part in it.

Dragon-Sickness

Another example of a dragon is found in Tolkien’s “The Hoard,” which is part of a series of poems in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. You can hear Tolkien read this here. This reflects the greed that Tolkien calls dragon-sickness and which figures prominently in The Hobbit.

It speaks first of the Elder Days before dragons even came to be and of the Elves who made many beautiful things of gold and silver. Yet greed for these things overwhelmed the joy of their making, and “over Elvenhome the shadow rolled” (ATB 53). The poem then switches to a dwarf with the same sickness, who has spent many long years making things and hoping through them “to buy the power of kings” (ATB 53). Yet he is nearly blind and deaf, and he does not hear his death approaching in the form of a dragon. The scene shifts once again to an old dragon chained to his treasure by lust for it. He dreams of eating any robbers who come calling, but these thoughts so absorb him, he does not hear at first the warrior who comes to challenge him. The worm uses the powerful weapons that his body has, but he cannot escape the fatal blow.

The poem continues on with an old king, long past any enjoyment of life or awareness of anything but the lust for the treasure he hoards. He does not hear his doom approaching anymore than the others. The poem ends with the hoard outlasting all who it has destroyed, “forgotten behind doors none can unlock; that grim gate no man can pass” (ATB 56).

Dragons loomed large in the imagination of Tolkien, and we have not even touched upon perhaps the truest of them all, the ones Morgoth spawned for his great wars against Middle-earth. Yet these too were vulnerable to greed and could be defeated in battle. The most famous of all Tolkien’s dragons, Smaug, certainly was.

The Ugliness of Greed

The great worms will ever live in the world of Faërie, and we can enjoy them from the safety of our favorite reading place. But as we shiver in delighted terror, let us not forget what they can also teach us.

In presenting Smaug as the personification of the destructiveness of avarice, Tolkien shows us the ugliness of materialistic greed. The dragon jealously guards his treasure but does not enjoy it, cannot possibly use it, and does not even know what has true value and what is just a trinket. Even so, he does not wish to share his amassed wealth with anyone. His overreaction after discovering that the cup Bilbo stole is missing is almost as bad as Gollum’s regarding the Ring, and it grows much worse.

We can also learn much from Bilbo’s and Thorin’s reaction to greed, or the dragon-sickness as Tolkien calls it. The discovery of the Arkenstone inflames the hobbit’s heart with avarice, but it is only a temporary infection. Greed much more deeply poisons Thorin’s heart and soul. The lowest point of his life comes after desire for the Arkenstone so bewitches him that he nearly murders Bilbo after the burglar bravely confesses he gave the priceless artifact away.

St. Paul’s words to Timothy about the perils of pursuing wealth are also applicable to this dwarf and the general dwarven lust for material things: “People who long to be rich are a prey to temptation; they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and dangerous ambitions which eventually plunge them into ruin and destruction. ‘The love of money is the root of all evils’ and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds” (1 Tim. 6:9-10).

Let us be careful not to become afflicted by the dragon-sickness ourselves, but if we are, let us remember the source of true wealth, that of cheer and simplicity which Thorin only discovered on his death-bed.

Who is your favorite dragon in literature or popular entertainment?  What makes this dragon great?

About the Author:

Anne Marie Gazzolo is the author of Moments of Grace and Spiritual Warfare in The Lord of the Rings, which includes a chapter on The Hobbit. Sign up for her mailing list at www.annemariegazzolo.com and get a free copy of her ebook about applying to your life the lessons taught by Hobbits, Wizards, Elves, Men, and Dwarves, coming out December 2013! You can also connect with her on Facebook and Pinterest.

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Will Hahn
7 years ago

Marvelous and thoughtful article, thanks so much. Dragon-sickness is contagious, and certainly gets to me in the Alleged Real World on more than few occasions!
My favorite dragon scene has to be the showdown between Ged and Yvaud in Wizard of Earthsea. The antagonism, deep lore, and wealth are all there, plus a delicate balance of power that gives us humans a shred of hope in what seems a very unequal battle. I go back to read LeGuin’s mastery again and again.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
7 years ago

Thanks for the comments! Dragons certainly abound in fantasy literature.
Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Anne Marie Gazzolo
7 years ago

Glad you enjoyed it, Aidan!
Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Aidan of the tavern
Aidan of the tavern
7 years ago

Good article.  “But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.”  Wow, that’s something I’ve thought since childhood, but been unable to put into words :-).

Philip Overby
Philip Overby
7 years ago

Hmm…that’s hard. I’m going to say the dragons from A Song of Fire and Ice, a three way tie. I actually prefer monstrous dragons to super intelligent ones. They seem more terrifying when they can’t be rationalized with.

Shawn Spjut
Shawn Spjut
7 years ago

Saphira>Eragon…

Simon Lindsell
Simon Lindsell
7 years ago

Vermithrax from Dragonslayer…a real old school (non-nice!) beast 🙂

Cristobal Rosen
Cristobal Rosen
7 years ago

Ellegon from Joel Rosenberg’s “Guardians of the Flame” series. He is rescued from a sewage system and helps the characters with their struggle. He is telepathic and very intelligent, knowing when to be intimidating.

Tony Dragani
Tony Dragani
7 years ago

My favorite dragon is Alduin from Skyrim. He’s terrifying, yet very cool.

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